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Friday, March 10, 2006

The Price is Right, But Expensive

Some years ago, in the wake of the development of cash register bar-code scanning, many states imposed "item pricing" laws on retailers.  Laws required that, with some exceptions, each item on sale in a store be individually marked with a price.  The goal was to protect consumers from a perception that stores might take advantage of them by ringing up higher prices at the register than were marked on the display signs, while the consumer wouldn't notice.

Turns out that consumers are paying a fair amount for this protection.  A new paper, When Little Things Mean a Lot: On the Inefficiency of Item Pricing Laws, suggests that consumers pay higher average prices in stores subject to item pricing than in stores where it is not required.  The paper is by Mark Bergen (Minnesota-Management), Daniel Levy (Bar Ilan-Economics), Sourav Ray (McMaster-Business), Paul Rubin (Emory-Law), and Benjamin Zeliger (Cornell-Law).  Here's the abstract:

Item pricing laws (IPLs) require a price tag on every item sold by a retailer. We study IPLs and assess their efficiency by examining and quantifying their costs and comparing them to their measurable benefits.  On the cost side, we posit that IPLs should lead to higher prices because they increase the cost of pricing as well as the cost of price adjustment. We test this prediction using data collected from large supermarket chains in the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which offer a unique setting because these states vary in their use of IPLs, but otherwise offer geographical proximity with each other and similar markets, supermarket chains, and socioeconomic environments. We find that IPL store prices are higher by about 20¢-25¢ or 8.0%-9.6% per item on average, in comparison to non-IPL stores.  As a control, we use data from stores that are exempted from IPL
requirements (because they use electronic shelf labels), and find that their prices fall between IPL and non-IPL store prices. To assess the efficiency of IPLs, we compare these costs to existing measures of the benefits of IPLs. Specifically, we study the frequency and magnitude of pricing errors, which the IPLs are supposed to prevent. We find that the IPLs' costs are an order of magnitude higher than these benefits.

[Frank Snyder]

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